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Letwin: We will take young criminals off the conveyor belt to crime

Speech to Conservative Spring Forum 2002

Almost every day our newspapers and televisions carry stories of horrific crimes.

Almost every day we hear the anguished voices of these victims of crime asking what is to be done.

The failure to tackle crime has given rise to pessimism and despair.

I understand that pessimism but I do not share it.

Sometimes in life you are privileged to witness astonishing achievements. Two weeks ago I had that privilege.

I visited a city. I met individuals who were determined to transform the life of that city by drastically cutting crime. I visited a police force whose morale was second to none.

A city whose Mayor and Commissioner of Police had the political vision - against the prevailing consensus at the time - to put the police on every street and to ensure that they became custodians of their neighbourhoods.

A city which has given the streets back to its citizens by dealing with every manifestation of disorder, whether it be simple graffiti, youth offending or drugs.

That city was New York.

New York used to be like many parts of our cities.

Places where street crime, social disorder and violence has become the norm rather than the exception. Places where criminals are not often brought to justice. Places where the police are demoralised because of interference from politicians and bureaucrats.

It was not always like this in Britain. Violent crimes were not unknown in 1956 when I was born. But they were not so frequent that the papers had a fresh tale of terror for every edition. It was not the case that children carried knives or that drug deals were done in the playground. Women were not dragged from their vehicles by carjackers. No one even knew what carjacking was. Indeed there was little fear of theft of any kind. When a man who later became my neighbour on the Wandsworth Road in London left money for the butcher and the baker in a drawstring bag hanging from a latch, it was not stolen and he didn't expect it to be stolen.

Something has changed in our society over my lifetime. When I was born, there were 68,000 police officers and less than 500,000 crimes a year. Now there are 127,000 police officers and 5 million crimes a year.

There are those that assure us that the tide has now turned and use the survey statistics to make their case. But most people in this country do not believe the survey statistics. Most people think street crime is rising. And the statistics for reported crime suggest they are right. The Home Office itself tells us that:

· The number of young people committing serious crimes, including murder and grievous bodily harm, has almost doubled in last seven years.

· Gun crime has trebled in London during the past year and is soaring in other British cities.

· Crimes involving knives have also trebled in London in the past year and they too are increasing in other British cities.

These figures tell us something that is true about the everyday lives of millions of people: that life-shattering violence is not unthinkable, that violence has become the common currency of crime and that the fear of crime lies around every corner.

But the public aren't just afraid. They are angry and they have every right to be so.

Government has many duties and the first of these is to protect the public.

My opposite number, the Home Secretary - to do him justice - does understand that we no longer feel protected. But what is he doing in response?

He is trying to take power to control every police force in Britain from a desk in Whitehall.

Presumably, he imagines that efficiency will be improved by the Home Office - the Home Office, which has given us an Immigration and Nationality Department that can't process applications faster than the average snail; an asylum system that is, by his own admission - in a state of chaos; and a youth justice system with appallingly high re-offending rates.

He threatens to sack the Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police, and engages upon a damaging, divisive and demoralising conflict with the police service. Five thousand police officers arrive to protest outside Parliament and, for the first time in living memory, policemen begin to ask for the right to strike.

I might have suggested to him that this is a time to pick a fight with the criminals, not with the police. But I don't need to - because he has noticed this for himself.

We know he has noticed, because he and the Prime Minister have held a 'summit'. This last week. Very impressive. An initiative. Very impressive. So, of course, were the last 29 initiatives taken by Mr Blunkett since he became Home Secretary.

Let's hope this one will be different from the rest. Let's hope this one will actually work.

But I fear that the chances are slim. Why? Because Mr. Blunkett is the Newton of modern criminal justice policy. Newton told us that, for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction.

In Mr. Blunkett's case, it can truly be said that, for each initiative, there is an equal and opposite initiative.

So the day after the summit, focusing on street crime, what did the Home Secretary do? He announced that he was not able to find prison places for the people whom the police were going to arrest and the courts were going to convict.

And he told us he had discovered a brilliant device for solving the problem. He was going to let a large additional number of existing prisoners out early on electronic tags.

What was the message to potential criminals? Just be sure that, if you intend to engage in crime, you wait until my prisons are full. Then I guarantee you'll be in and out in a trice!

But perhaps we shouldn't worry too much. Because, a few days before the summit, the Home Secretary had already made sure that not too many people would be arrested.

What was his brilliant wheeze that week? What was that week's 'initiative'? It was to require every police officer to issue a report every time someone is stopped on the street.

How will that cut bureaucracy and make the police more effective at fighting street crime? I have to admit, I don't know. Alas, Mr. Blunkett's junior Minister, Mr. Denham, didn't know either when I asked him in the House of Commons.

Thousands of police officers don't know either.

But I can tell you who does know. The boys in the gangs know. They know they are not likely to be stopped, because the police officer stopping them will have to spend most of the morning handing out notices to every member of the gang.

So my message to the Home Secretary is this. "David, calm down, slow down. Your heart is in the right place. But you can't cure street crime in this country with a thousand incoherent and conflicting initiatives. You can't cure it by alienating the police or trying to control this all from a desk in Whitehall. Time is running out. We have a crisis of street crime on our hands. To tackle it, we need a coherent programme, calmly developed, and carefully implemented."

Now, you will ask me: "what is our programme?" And that is why I have been beginning to develop a coherent programme for Conservative policy on crime over the last few months.

Back in January I delivered a speech called Beyond the Causes of Crime. It sets the agenda for everything the Conservative Party hopes to achieve on the issue of law and order.

When the Prime Minister spoke about being tough on crime and tough on the causes of crime, he too was hoping to set an agenda, and in many ways he succeeded. But the time has come to start looking beyond the causes of crime. We think it is better to find out what causes the opposite of crime - in other words those patterns of decent, friendly, civilised behaviour that make for what I call the neighbourly society.

We believe that the neighbourly society is the most important defence we have against crime. A neighbourly society is built upon strong and supportive relationships within families, between neighbours and throughout the wider community. A united, concerned and vigilant community not only guards against the attacks of the established criminal, but also turns young people away from the path of crime.

But what chance does the neighbourly society have when the young learn that thuggery goes unpunished while good people live in fear? How can we expect communities to form and flourish when the streets are overrun by vandals and drug dealers? We need to understand crime and community as two opposing forces. Crime has weapons at its disposal above all, violence and the threat of violence. In the face of such a threat the peaceful community can only retreat, ceding more ground to the criminal, exposing young people to values wholly opposed to those of the neighbourly society. Thus neighbourhoods decay; the young are corrupted; people who can, get out; and people who can't, live blighted lives. All this, because decent people are afraid.

Crime isn't just about the headline offences of rape and murder, or even the more common offences of mugging and burglary.

It is about the everyday crimes, conveniently filed away under the term 'social disorder': graffiti, vandalism, petty theft, fly tipping, drug dealing, intimidation, bullying, racial abuse, the corrupting influence of gangs, and the underlying, but entirely viable, threat of violence against anyone who stands up to the wreckers.

Yes, of course, people do fear the headline crimes, but in many neighbourhoods there is another kind of fear, closer to despair, born of the knowledge that we must limit our lives or become victims anyway; that the street is owned by the criminal, not by the citizen; that vandals can do what they will, even if everyone knows who they are; that thugs may torment their neighbours with only retaliation guaranteeing a decisive police response; that the gang is a stronger influence on our children than the school; that in the frontline against fear no one is on our side; that we are right to be afraid.

I have spoken of the struggle between crime and community. It is a struggle that the community is losing and the evidence of defeat can be seen most starkly in Britain's poorest neighbourhoods. There is something desperately wrong with our society when the people we put in the front line against fear are those least able to stand up to the thugs - the poor, the very old and the very young. They need some one to fight for them, not just holding the line against fear, but taking back the ground lost to the forces of disorder.

Who will take on this role? We believe it must be the police.

What we want is the kind of policing that takes back the streets from the muggers and the drug dealers and makes them safe for the decent, law-abiding people of this country. I call this neighbourhood policing and it is the foundation on which we will rebuild the neighbourly society.

This is not just a dream. It can be done. And the reason I can be so sure is because it has been done. Not in this country, of course. But in America, where city after city has declared war on social disorder of all kinds.

Two weeks ago, when I was in New York as the guest of the NYPD, what did I see? I saw policemen walking the streets. I saw patrol cars, which patrol small areas on a continuous, 24-hour basis. I saw the teams available to move in behind the beat-cops and the patrols to tackle crime on the street. I saw how week-by-week, street-by-street mapping of crime makes transparent where and when crime is being committed, and forces policemen at all levels - right up to Chief Constable level - to produce timely, effective strategies for dealing with street crime. I saw how the Police Department and other agencies tackle quality of life issues as well as crime. I saw a criminal justice system that is based on a sense of urgency.

Does it work? The figures speak for themselves. Over 9 years, murder in New York has been reduced by 80%; robbery, burglary and car theft by over 70%; theft by just under 50% and rape by just under 40%. Across these crimes as a whole, the reduction is 60% since the new methods were introduced.

You are now five times more likely to be the victim of crime in London than in New York, and twice as likely to be robbed or mugged. New York is now a noticeably safer and more pleasant place to live in than London.

Why isn't our government bringing about the same transformation over here? Because, true to form, they want to do the whole thing themselves. Instead of leading from the front, David Blunkett wants to run every police force in the land from his desk. It won't work. Reform isn't about micro-management by politicians, bureaucrats and spin-doctors, it's about setting public service professionals free to do the job they were always meant to do. The tragedy of New Labour is that they cannot grasp this truth.

Neighbourhood policing is critical. But it is not enough. We believe that the criminal justice system needs to change. The Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police was right. There is not much point in catching criminals, if it takes months to conduct trials and if they are bailed back onto the streets to commit more crime during those months. We need to find means of instilling a sense of urgency into our criminal justice system.

Our prisons are another problem. 58 per cent of all prisoners are caught re-offending within two years of release. For prisoners under the age of 21, the record is much worse. 75 per cent of all young offenders sentenced to custodial sentences are caught re-offending within two years.

These figures are simply unacceptable in a civilised society. How can we accept that a young person, once a criminal, is always a criminal? How can we accept that level of failure? How will we ever have safe streets and a neighbourly society if we continue to accept it?

In the next few months, Conservatives will be bringing forward radical proposals for reform of the youth justice system - proposals designed to take young criminals off the conveyor belt to crime.

But we also need radical proposals to prevent young people getting onto the conveyor belt in the first place.

To do that, we have to have effective neighbourhood policing - and a fast, effective court system. We have to break up the gangs when they are committing crime, and we have to prove to young people that crime can and will be stopped in its tracks. We have to clean up the neighbourhoods in which graffiti, fly-tipping and vandalism have reduced the quality of life to a level where crime seems natural.

But these things are not sufficient. We also have to build upon the work that Michael Howard began when he was Home Secretary. We have to make a reality of co-operation between the police, the schools, the local authorities, the Drug Advisory Service and other agencies, to spot the youngsters at most risk of becoming criminals, and to intervene effectively before they get onto the conveyor belt to crime.

Nor will the state be able to do everything that needs doing.

A great part of the heat of the day will have to be borne by volunteers, by charities, by what Douglas Hurd called 'active citizens'. Conservatives believe in active citizenship. Many people in this hall are the active citizens, the volunteers, the people who support the charities that are preventing young people from joining the conveyor belt to crime.

In the next few months, as we come forward with specific policy proposals on neighbourhood policing and reform of the criminal justice system, we will also bring forward specific policies on the voluntary sector, to widen and deepen voluntary effort - to lead our young people away from the conveyor belt to crime.

Our work in this Parliament has barely begun. We have much to learn, and much to study. We are conscious of the magnitude of the task.

But I make this pledge to you today. We will go on thinking and go on working. By the time that we come to the next election, we will go into that election with a coherent, developed, long-term programme to fight street crime in this country, and to rescue our streets for the decent citizens of this country.

Only with such a programme can we hope to achieve a neighbourly society in Britain. Only with such a programme can we hope to achieve a Conservative Government in Britain. It is our ambition and our intention, to achieve both of these goals.

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